The Coast Guard says 38 people are still missing off the coast of Florida as the situation becomes “dire,” the Coast Guard says.

MIAMI BEACH, Florida (AP) — The U.S. Coast Guard struggled with time and currents Wednesday as planes and ships searched for 38 people missing in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida, four days after capsizing a boat suspected of smuggling died at least one and one known survivor.

Captain Jo-Anne F. Burdian said at a press conference that finding other migrants alive is their top priority. She said the survivor told rescuers they capsized shortly after being caught in a storm from the Bahamas on Saturday night. The Coast Guard was alerted Tuesday morning after the crew of a merchant vessel spotted a man sitting alone on the capsized hull of a 25-foot boat.

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“It’s horrible. The longer they stay in the water… exposed to the marine environment… every moment becomes more horrifying and less likely,” she said.

Crews searched throughout the day and night, extrapolating the crash site to about 40 miles (64 km) from Fort Pierce, Florida. By Wednesday morning, crews from at least four ships and five planes had scanned a vast area roughly the size of New Jersey, Bardian said. They planned to continue searching during the day and then reassess.

“We are using all the information we can to make sure our search efforts are exhausted,” Bourdian said. But we can’t search forever.

The man was part of a group of 40 people who left Bimini Island in the Bahamas on Saturday night in a human-smuggling operation suspected by the maritime security agency, she said. The man said they rolled over shortly after and neither was wearing life jackets, she added.

The Coast Guard said a small craft warning was issued as a strong cold front blew through the dangerous passage Saturday and Sunday with winds up to 23 mph (37 km/h) and waves up to 9 feet (3 meters). Tommy Sewell, a local bone-fishing guide, said there were strong winds and heavy rain squalls from Sunday to Monday.

The survivor was taken to the hospital with symptoms of dehydration and sun exposure. Bourdian did not disclose details about him, saying that he is now in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security.

Bimini is a small island about 55 miles (90 km) east of Miami and about 100 miles (160 km) south of where the survivor was found. The capsized boat appears to have been pushed north by the Gulf Stream, a warm and fast current that skirts the Florida peninsula and flows north along the Atlantic coast of the United States.

Migrants have long used the Bahamas as a springboard to get to Florida and the United States. They usually try to use weather changes to make the crossing, but ships are often dangerously overloaded and prone to capsizing. Over the years there have been thousands of deaths.

For the most part, these migrants came from Haiti and Cuba, but the Royal Bahamas Defense Force reported the detention of migrants from other parts of the world, including from Colombia and Ecuador earlier this month.

The Coast Guard constantly patrols the waters around Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas. On Friday, its crews pulled 88 Haitians from an overloaded sailing freighter west of Great Inagua, Bahama.

“Sailing through the Straits of Florida, Windward and Mona… is extremely dangerous and could result in loss of life,” the Coast Guard said over the weekend.

Last July, the Coast Guard rescued 13 people after their boat capsized off Key West as Tropical Storm Elsa approached.

The survivors said they left Cuba with 22 people on board. Nine were missing in the water.

Associated Press contributor Ben Fox of Washington contributed to this report.


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